Moral and Creation Tales: A Review of Bojan Louis’s Sinking Bell

cover of the book Sinking Bell

In the opening story of Bojan Louis’s debut collection, Sinking Bell, the narrator’s love interest asks him about coyotes. “Don’t you guys, I mean Navajos, place a lot of belief in the coyote, the trickster?” The narrator, a Navajo man, answers more kindly than he might have if he wasn’t in love with this girl. “Coyote is just someone we tell stories about … I mean, it shouldn’t get all the useless attention it does, as if it were the whole basis of our culture and not just an element.” There’s a restraint in how he delivers his response, but his exhaustion is apparent. Shrewdly titled “Trickster Myths,” the story sets the stage for a collection that attempts, with each installment, to deconstruct old and lazy stereotypes associated with the Diné, though Louis’s storytelling skill and instinct for drama prevent it from ever feeling like an extended polemic. The characters in these stories—construction workers, electricians, janitors, and writers—are just trying to get by. They don’t particularly enjoy confronting and correcting the racist and degrading misconceptions they face in the daily act of existing, as if anyone would. More than anything, they just want to live with dignity and respect, even if they have to take it for themselves by force.

The stories are linked by place, each set in or near Flagstaff, Arizona, and one can sense both Louis’s love for and frustration with the seemingly idyllic mountain town. Joan Didion said “a place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest,” though Louis’s ambivalence leaves the question open as to whether he thinks any place in contemporary America can be worth claiming, or more appropriately, re-claiming. His characters, who for the most part exist on society’s fringes, if there is such a place, are constantly battling the forces of an expanding monoculture. This clash is illustrated overtly and powerfully in one of the collection’s middle stories, “As Meaningless As The Origin.” In it, a wealthy computer tech who has moved from the Pacific Northwest constructs a mansion with the aesthetic of a Southwestern style Pinterest board. The narrator is hired by the owner to help hang sheetrock. When he’s shorted a hundred bucks at the end of the job, he steals one of the owner’s Navajo print blankets while the owner isn’t looking—a quiet act of rebellion, a reclaiming on the most micro scale. But it’s these small moments of reclamation, of asserting oneself in the face of obliteration, that imbues each story with a sense of hope, reluctant and fragile as it may be.

Louis’s prose reflects the personalities of his characters—understated and geared towards efficiency with unexpected liftoffs into poetic and philosophical insight. “If one saw emptiness in another person, did they in fact see, or come to see, emptiness within themselves?” one of the characters asks a girl he’s into. She pauses, takes in his question, then bends over laughing at his pretentiousness. There is this tension throughout, both in the language and the action of the stories, between a striving intellectualism, even romanticism, and the trivial and utilitarian demands of everyday life. In this way, Louis captures the fundamental conflicts that exist across non-urban America: the expanding gap between classes and the gradual loss of individual communities and identities. In “A New Place to Hide,” a thirteen-year-old boy recalls his parents’ separation. He loves his mother but finds this loving difficult because he knows she wants to leave. “It was her attention and affection I often sought and was denied, not because she didn’t love me, but because she knew our lives together would come to an end.” In other words, he’s becoming aware that the center cannot hold, that something has to break in order for anyone to move on. A family, a mindset, a country. “We must correct what’s not been right,” she tells him before she disappears forever.

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